Encouraging Students to Make Mistakes: Lessons from Silicon Valley

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Jan Koum, co-founder and CEO of WhatsApp, used an abacus at his school in Ukraine because calculators were not available. As a teenager, he emigrated to the United States in 1992 and settled in Mountain View, California, not far from today’s Google headquarters. He and his mother struggled in those early years, living in public housing and receiving food stamps. Today, more than a billion users send messages through WhatsApp on their mobile devices. The company was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion. Koum’s rags to riches story illustrates how Silicon Valley’s unique ecosystem and culture provide the resources and support necessary to build new companies and products that change the way that people work, live, play, and learn.

Silicon Valley: The Untold Story, a new three-part documentary from award-winning Kikim Media airing March 19, 2018, on Discovery’s Science Channel, reveals what has made Silicon Valley a hotbed of “the next big thing” for decades. As the community and educational outreach partner for the film, the Computer History Museum’s Exponential Center developed lesson plans for grades 7-12 that are freely accessible on the Museum’s website with accompanying video clips. Meeting a variety of national common core standards, they explore the concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship through design thinking, research, and collaborative activities, as well as investigations into the technology that students see and use every day. Online resources from the Museum’s collections extend the learning experience beyond the classroom.

(Discussion guides for college and adult learners provide provocative guidelines for in-depth exploration of the innovation ecosystem in Silicon Valley: what works and why.)

Diversity Works

There is a persistent myth that great leaps forward come from heroic inventors (white and male) working alone. But the truth is that innovation more often involves multiple people in productive collaboration. The video clips and lesson plans from the first part of the series, “Magnetic Force,” explore how cultural myths shape historical narratives and how factors such as race, gender, class, and place influence how stories about our collective history are told.

Women have always worked in Silicon Valley, even if their contributions have not been recognized. In the video clips, entrepreneurs Heidi Roizen and Kim Polese talk about their experiences as women CEOs in the male-dominated tech industry. Immigrants, too, make up a large percentage of the population and bring new perspectives from all over the world. Stories like those of Narinder Kapany, a pioneer in fiber optics, demonstrate how immigrants participate in the innovation culture of Silicon Valley and how the region draws the best and brightest from all over the world.

Lesson plan activities and assignments that accompany the video clips allow students to:

  • Investigate entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds and create presentations to share what they’ve learned.
  • Ask why representation matters and collaborate on strategies to diversify the tech community using demographic data.
  • Consider how taxpayer funding and government programs shaped the history and the future success of Silicon Valley.

Check out one of the clips used in this lesson plan.


The Roots of Apple

In the lesson plan related to the second part of the documentary series, “Secret Sauce,” students view video clips that explore the history of Silicon Valley and the earliest days of Apple Computers. They’ll learn that the “secret sauce” includes industries that attract talented engineers and innovators from all over the world, top universities, mentor entrepreneurs, access to capital, and a culture that encourages risk-taking and learning from failure. Clips show that during the space and arms races of the 1950s, the federal government funded a number of defense contractors in Silicon Valley, attracting engineers and scientists to the region. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s hobby, building computers, was greatly helped by the discarded transistors that his engineer father brought home from work. Later, when Wozniak and another son of an engineer, Steve Jobs, founded Apple Computers, they did so to disrupt those same defense contractors. True children of the counterculture, they intended to bring the power of computing out of the corporate world and into the homes of regular people.

In activities and assignments, students will:

  • Explore how technology develops from an idea into something that people use every day, sometimes without even realizing it.
  • Choose their own favorite technology to research, find out who invented it and why, and examine how trial and error led to the final product.
  • Imagine themselves as future historians and speculate about what a technology or company in use today reveal about the society in which it was invented and used.

Check out one of the clips used in this lesson plan.


Make Big Mistakes

Start-ups are hard work and the first idea is rarely the final product. Video clips from the third part of the series, “Lucky Accidents,” demonstrate how Silicon Valley incubators encourage the risk-taking and trial and error necessary to turn dreams into reality by exploring the rocky start of Airbnb. The accidental development of the first video game, the wildly successful Pong, originated as a training exercise for a new engineer at Atari. Students will hear how a company culture that encouraged taking risks and making mistakes was credited with fostering the creativity that led to success.

Lesson plan activities and assignments lead students to:

  • Focus on understanding the role that collaboration, trial and error, and persistence play in innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • Consider what innovation is and what conditions make it possible.
  • Explore and apply design thinking strategies to solve a problem in their community and document their process with video journals, project diaries, or expository essays. They’ll learn how to give and receive constructive feedback from collaborators and peers and refine their work through trial and error.

Access the lesson plans and video clips and learn more about the Exponential Center, Kikim Media, and lesson plan author Allison Milewski on our website.


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